Question: What is the understanding of the indwelling Spirit/Christ in process theology?
Publication Month: May 2014
The philosophical answer to this question based on the text of Whitehead is two-fold. Central to Whitehead’s philosophy is the divine presence in every occasion in the form of the initial aim. This is the immanence of the Primordial Nature of God. The Primordial Nature is the sphere of potentiality ordered so as to evoke maximum value in the world. The “initial aim” around which each occasion is brought into being is the effect of this primordial ordering in each unique situation. It is determined by God’s aim to increase value. It is very personal, in that it is specific to each person’s momentary experience.
Whitehead speculates that we also prehend the Consequent Nature of God. This prehension is not only very personal for us, but is of that aspect of God that is most like a person, God’s own integration of all the experiences that make up the world in the divine experience. Some people feel God’s unconditional acceptance, God’s compassion, even God’s glory. Or there may be instances in which they feel a calling that is more than the urge to do what is best. It seems to depend not only on the existing situation but on God’s expectations about the future.
Whitehead’s intention, I think, in pointing out that his philosophy is open to experience of the Consequent Nature of God is not to declare what that experience is like, but to open us to take seriously the reports of what others have experienced that can best be understood in this way. This also leads us to an openness to unexpected possibilities. What in fact happens is an empirical question, not one to be decided philosophically. We must take seriously those who, seeking a vivid experience of God, are disappointed by God’s long silence. We must take seriously those who, without any expectation, are suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of divine presence. We can only speculate about why the experience of God varies so widely within individual lives and among people.
Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians focus attention on this type of experience of God and think of Spirit/Christ primarily in terms of such dramatic experiences. Others of us worry that this focus can lead to bogus experiences, exaggerated claims, and keen disappointments. One may even be led to feel guilty for failing to have such experiences. On the other hand, quite possibly, the expectancy generated in these communities increases the frequency of authentic experiences.
Old-line Christians have typically focused on what Whitehead calls the “initial aim,” which is the prehension of the Primordial Nature of God. The Holy Spirit or the living Christ is always with us, always calling us to actualize the best potentiality of the present moment. We are to believe that God loves us and forgives us whether or not we have any special feeling of that love or forgiveness. Often members of mainline churches are hesitant to talk about their more dramatic experiences of God. It is quite possible that this lack of expectancy and of sharing of experiences reduces their frequency. Process theology encourages us to be more expectant, more encouraging, but not to try to force God’s hand.
Thus far I have followed the questioner by making no distinction between the Spirit and Christ. In my view there is no real consensus within the church about whether to distinguish them and if so how. If we follow the prologue to John’s gospel, the everlasting Christ, who was incarnate in Jesus, was the Logos. It is easy to think of Whitehead’s “initial aim” as a fresh formulation of the role of the Logos in the world. We can then distinguish the immanence of the Consequent Nature in human experience as the Holy Spirit. However, I do not find any way of making this distinction that fits all the biblical language, and I think we can generally communicate well within the church without clearly distinguishing them.
More important are the ideas that can be drawn from Whitehead about the content of the initial aim and how we can more often fulfill it. We find many impulses within us, and it is not always easy to decide which comes from God. We sometimes say, “Let go and let God.” This is excellent advice, but the danger is that what we let take over may not be God. How do we judge?
As Christians we find much guidance in the Bible and especially in the person and teaching of Jesus. However, in this paper I will focus on the guidance we can get from Whitehead. I do not find any difficulty in combining these approaches.
For Whitehead the divine aim within each moment of experience is for the realization of the greatest possible value in the moment and in the influence of that moment in the future. This leaves open the possibility of tension between immediate self-enjoyment and its anticipated effects. This is a tension we find also in the commandment to love others as we love ourselves. For both Jesus and Whitehead, I think, most of the time authentic immediate fulfillment contributes most to the future. To put it simply, if one is enjoying oneself, one’s companions usually enjoy one’s companionship more. However, the relationship between present and future is more complex. Enjoying oneself in the moment may be thought of as indulging appetites that work against one’s future health or meeting the needs of others.
Whitehead associates the achievement of value with the complexity that is effectively unified. Every occasion of experience is an instance of the many becoming one. But how much of the many is integrated in the new occasion varies greatly. The aim, therefore, is to open oneself to more of the past. That means to be more sensitive to what is going on in one’s own body and one’s own past, to begin with, but of course also in one’s surroundings. Of special importance are the feelings of those with whom one is interacting. But beyond that are the feelings of those one knows about only indirectly or through imagination.
All of this can be put under the heading of increasing compassion. Of course, we usually limit the idea of compassion to relations with other living things, especially people. But if we take the word seriously, we understand that it means “feeling with.” For Whitehead physical feelings are feeling other feelings. The feelings of the cells in one’s own body and one’s own past experiences are important objects of such feelings. So our experience in each moment is composed of com-passion, that is, of feeling with. Making a sharp distinction between feelings that we associate with oneself and those we associate with others is not desirable.
Our experience is also enriched by ideas derived from others or generated in the creativity of the moment. Here, too, value grows with greater inclusion. The initial aim should be associated with openness to new ideas even when they feel threatening. On the other hand, the question is always how much can be integrated. Sheer openness can lead to sheer confusion in which there is little value.
Too often, we associate God’s will with what we have been taught in the past or socialized to approve. This belief can in fact be a block to the achievement of the value God calls us to achieve. One refuses to feel the feelings of those who are excluded from one’s circle or to hear ideas that challenge what one has been told. One may also repress one’s own bodily feelings, instead of including the body’s interests alongside others.
A very common problem in the West is the close association of “God” with moral rules. These rules are often excellent guides to actions that God favors, but when they are taken as absolute, they may block compassionate action. Jesus spoke positively of the law, but only insofar as it operated in the service of the neighbor. The laws of Sabbath observance, he taught, were for the sake of human beings. When they blocked response to human need they should be set aside. Ultimately, the only requirements are love of God, neighbor, and self. Following Whitehead leads to the same conclusion.
One can see, in this understanding, why fulfillment in the present and contribution to the future are usually compatible. As one extends the sphere of those with whom one is bound by compassion, one’s aim includes their wellbeing. Whitehead said the broader and more inclusive the future we take into account the more moral we are. In general, the broader and more inclusive the past we integrate, the broader and more inclusive will be the future we take into account.
I believe that understanding God’s call in this way provides us real guidance in distinguishing the leading of the Spirit from other pulls and pushes. We cannot, moment by moment, calculate just what that aim may be, but we can generally sense the distinction between what is calling us forward into greater openness and inclusiveness and what is holding us back. If we understand “letting go” as letting go of the latter, it will result in “letting God.” If we develop the habit of “letting God” in this sense, then we can go with the flow without thinking much about it. In my view, this is the Spirit-filled life. In Paul’s language, it is life “in Christ.”